A Way with a Chainsaw: Dennis Nellis

The first time I met Dennis Nellis, he stopped by my house on his bicycle, accompanied by his granddaughter Riley. Riley and my daughter, classmates at Southern Door, ran off to play together and Dennis took a look at our ancient willow, which was sporting a large and stubborn broken limb, damaged in a recent storm. My husband and I had been trying unsuccessfully to pull it down, using our truck, a rope, and, I’m sure, other assorted nonsense. Dennis, spry and trim in his early 60s, offered to help.

He retrieved his tools, and half an hour later, he was up on a ladder, strapped and supported for safety. Holding the roaring saw with one hand, he made a few quick strokes on the enormous bough. “There she goes,” he said, as the limb fell easily. The man has a way with a chainsaw.

Cutting trees is just the beginning for Dennis Nellis. As a chainsaw sculptor, he has created hundreds of woodcarvings in his five-year career as an artist. His work ranges from modest-sized, but exquisitely-crafted, birch pieces such as his wife’s favorite, an eagle at rest, to towering six to seven-foot pieces. One of his largest is a recent carving of a dolphin, done at grandson Cody’s request.

“He told me he wanted to take it home and put it on his dresser,” says Dennis with a twinkle in his eye. “I don’t think his mom would like that.”

Dennis always enjoyed cutting wood, and while harvesting trees he would sometimes carve “some funny thing in the woods for a hunter to find.” But in 2006 he retired from a 30-year career at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay where he started as a custodian, worked as an arborist and groundskeeper, and ended up as Supervisor of Central Receiving. He was ready for a new challenge.

“As a gift to myself, I took a weeklong course at Chainsaw Carving School in Hayward, Wis.,” says Dennis. He worked under the tutelage of Brian Johnson – one of the foremost chainsaw carvers in the region – and took to it with a passion.

“I started at the break of dawn, and I didn’t quit until it got too dark at night to see,” Dennis says. “I was like a madman.” Johnson told him that while most students accomplished one piece in their weeklong stay at the school, Dennis was exceptional, finishing seven sculptures in as many days.

He hasn’t stopped since. In the last five years, Dennis has amassed dozens of sculptures which line his long driveway on Marsh Road near the town of Kolberg in Southern Door. Many more fill his garden, his basement, and a large trailer that until recently he took to several craft shows a week. He stopped going to the craft shows this past summer.

“It got to be too much of a hassle, and in this economy, people just aren’t buying,” he says. Plus, getting off the craft show circuit gives Dennis more time to spend on his many other interests: fishing, caring for his horses, maintaining his beautiful wooded acreage, and road biking.

“I love my bike,” says Dennis, as we walk past his Trek, which he keeps in the house. “I can’t get enough of it.”

And, of course, Dennis spends many hours each week with his seven grandchildren, all of whom live within a couple of miles.

Although he’s no longer on the craft show circuit, customers still find him by word of mouth or through his annual demonstration at Potawatomi Park. “There were over a hundred people there this year,” he says. “The folks at the park tell me it’s the best attended event they have all summer.”

During his demonstration, Dennis carved a beautiful large bear – in just 20 minutes. “I didn’t see the crowd,” Dennis smiles gently. “I was possessed.”

At the end of the demonstration each year, a drawing is held for all the children in attendance, and the lucky winner takes home the sculpture. “This year the winner was a little girl who was handicapped. She was so happy. It was just wonderful,” he says.

“Chainsaw carvers are expected to carve bears and eagles,” says Dennis, and he has made plenty of those. But walk up his driveway and you’ll see a menagerie of creations – from a friendly looking ogre holding a lantern, to a quixotic monkey, to a pair of herons who look like they might take off in flight at any moment.

His creations come from his mind and often start with a drawing, a skill he has always had. “Art was the only class I got straight A’s in,” he smiles.

Dennis can also duplicate, although he says “that’s more of a challenge. I’ve got a guy who came to me after a trip to Alaska and brought me a tribal symbol of a raven. He shows me the carving, a few inches tall – he wants this…but big.”

Finding the right type of wood and finish also affect the quality of the piece. “You can use any kind of wood,” he says, “but white pine is the best.”

Dennis rolls out the handcrafted wagon he created to house his tools. He has a half dozen chainsaws which he uses in succession from largest to finest on any given sculpture. The dime carving tip is the special tool that enables him to achieve the detail for which his work is known. He sets up in a corner of his driveway that has permanent coating of sawdust.

“My grandkids love to watch. They’re constantly asking me to make different animals. And I just enjoy the art, the fun of it,” Dennis says.

Like so many other unsung artists who live and work in Door County, Dennis embraces his life – his land, his family and his neighbors, and his craft – and shares it freely. From the looks of it, there will be many more sculptures coming from the mind and chainsaws of Dennis Nellis.

To find out more about the artwork of Dennis Nellis, call him at 920.856.6968.